Friday, September 18, 2015

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match

This summer Erin and I were privileged to spend a day absorbing independent reading teaching strategies from Donalyn Miller at the Scholastic Reading Summit in Boston.  We were there to "assist," but we did little more than provide a cheesy introduction.  In reality, we were happily soaking up the positivity and enthusiasm that comes from having a high concentrate of literary professionals in a small space.

Donalyn, author of The  Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, inspired me to change the way I approach reading in the middle school classroom.  I thought about how I taught novels, what my independent reading requirements were, and I threw my old models out the window.  I can't tell you how my new novel plan worked - I plan to start it in two weeks - but I can report that the new independent reading model is already a smashing success. 

On day three of the new school year, I gave my 8th graders a reading interest survey.  They were asked if they identified themselves as "a reader," the last book they read and loved, what gets in the way of reading, and genres they preferred.  I spent Labor Day weekend pouring over student reading preferences and attitudes, and played match-maker, setting kids up on dates the books I thought best complimented their reading profile.

 Some students were easy to match.  They liked a wide range of genres and provided detailed insight into their reading psyche.  Others presented more of a challenge; these kids didn't have a history of positive relationships with books.  They did not categorize themselves as readers and their genre preferences were more narrow.  These readers (Donalyn taught me to call them developing or dormant, not struggling or reluctant) are the ones I had to work the hardest to please, and the ones for whom the matchmaker system works best. 

These are the kids who wrote comments claiming they didn't like to read.  And I think, too often, parents and teachers took them at face value and believed them.  But that buck stops here.  When faced with a child who claimed to not like reading, I simply told them their words were translated in my brain as, "I haven't found the right book yet."

The actual match making process was time consuming.  I devoted two full class periods to it.  I prepared a review activity for small groups to complete.  While they did, I walked from table to table with stacks of books I'd curated for them based on their survey.  One by one I sat next to each student and explained my choices.  "Because you said you like mystery, I pulled an Agatha Christie book.  Have you ever heard of her?"  "Because you said you hated reading but identified historical fiction as a genre you like, I brought you a graphic novel about the Donner Party.  Have you ever heard of them?"  In this way I had conversations with each student in the class over the course of two days.  Each student was presented with a minimum of three books.  Each books was the subject of a mini-book talk - no more than 60 seconds apiece - and students were given the option to pick a book or say they'd like new choices.

A handful of students, five to be precise, proved to be challenging.  Those five either outright rejected their offerings or returned minutes later to say they tried a book but didn't like it.  One boy identified himself as a lover of non-fiction and action adventure but rejected every exciting non-fiction read he was offered.  Chasing Lincoln's Killer?  Sounds boring.  Into Thin Air?  Nah.  Revenge of the Whale?
Nope.  Eventually, after thirty minutes of excruciating patience (I forced myself to remain calm.  I had to make sure that their book selection experience was positive and stress free.  Thankfully this encounter happened at the end of the school day.  Otherwise, I might have cracked), I asked him to define non-fiction.  Turns out, he had switched the definition of non-fiction and fiction.  He left with Soldier Boys, a happy camper.

One young lady claimed to like "old books," and reported reading and loving Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.  So I presented her with a varied mix of Jodi Picoult, Agatha Christie, and Carl Hiaasan.  She took Murder on the Orient Express but returned on Matchmaking Day Two to say she didn't like it.  I book talked two other YA titles.  She tried them both, blessing neither with approval.  Finally I took a desperate shot in the dark and asked, "Have you ever read Hatchet?"  And that's the one that stuck.

But for every child who put me through my paces, there was one who finished their book in one night.  I was thrilled to pieces when a student who claimed to "really dislike reading" read Smile in one night and asked to borrow Sisters and Drama for the weekend.  Thank you, Raina Telgemeier, for helping me reach this girl.

Before leaving for the weekend, a colleague told me that the kids were loving the books I recommended.  I replied that I was happy to hear that, and she said, "What they really loved is that YOU recommended them.  The kids told me, 'She picked this out just for me.'"

Until that moment, I hadn't thought about book matchmaking as a tool for relationship building, but now it seems blindingly obvious.  By giving three or four book talks to each individual child in my classes, I was able to give each one several minutes of undivided, one-on-one attention.  Think of that...several minutes of eye contact, story telling, smiling, and give and take conversation.  I'd completely overlooked how powerful that was going to be, not just for the kids, but for me.  I feel like I *know* my students so much better now.  I know that Thomas is on book four of the Charlie Higson books and Chris loves Harry Potter, that Shannon "hates to read" but loves S.E. Hinton, that Chloe reads slowly but loves a good horror story.  If you'd asked me last year after 7 days of teaching if I could name one thing about each of my students, I'd be lucky to get 50%.  And now?  I think I have a better start on the school year than I have in a long, long time.

Maybe it's a little early to celebrate.  It is only day 7 of the new year, after all.  But I can't help but feel optimistic.  I mean, just LOOK at them!